One Square Mile: Why I'll Never Call Myself a Bristolian

Oct 7, 2013

RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay first encountered Bristol as a journalist in the 1980s and he has lived there for more than decade. In this week’s commentary, linked to our One Square Mile series on Bristol, he explains why he’ll never call himself a Bristolian, no matter how long he lives in town. 

In Bristol, as in Faulkner’s south, the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.  History and the sparkling waters of Narragansett and Mount Hope bays have defined a community that is more than three centuries old.

Historic map with bird's eye view of Bristol.

Bristol’s story is America’s. And Rhode Island’s. Behind many a great fortune lays a great crime. Bristol’s early fortunes were coaxed from the African slave trade. The remnants of those riches stand today, from the stately Linden Place mansion financed from slaving’s profits to the De Wolf Tavern, housed in a rum distillery that has been restored to its Colonial-era glory.

Only the oldest and most storied families in Bristol can trace their lineage back to an original slaver or rum-runner.  The sheltered harbor that today is a lodestone for sail boats and fishermen pursuing stripers and bluefish was the interstate highway of the 17th and 18 centuries, the spur for thriving industries in boat-building, trade, yachting and fishing.

Bristol would evolve into an industrial powerhouse; immigrant workers from Ireland, Portugal, the Azores and Italy trekked from triple-deckers to red brick factories that churned out textiles and rubber products.

The Yankee mill barons of Fall River and Providence built estates along the coastline that still grace Bristol’s landscape, even if a few of them are now museums or parks.

Ancestry was once destiny in Bristol. Mary Cantwell, the writer who spent her childhood in Bristol but won fame in New York publishing and journalism circles, penned a memoir about growing up in Bristol during the Great Depression and the early years of World War II. Her book, `An American Girl’ is a lyrical love letter to a town where the border among Protestant and Catholic was a bright and bold as the red, white and blue stripe painted down the middle of Hope Street every year before the town’s celebrated Fourth of July parade.

``My classmates were the children of immigrants and they lived near the rubber factory,’’ writes Cantwell. ``Their grandmothers wore shawls and stumbled over English, if they spoke it at all, and on feast days their fathers, stocky men in dark, shiny suits, bent their backs to wooden platforms from which plaster saints bestowed frozen blessings on the crowd. They and their families had changed the face of Bristol from blue-eyed to Brown, from fair-skinned to olive, and their names were slippery and suspect to the northern tongue.’’

Now the third and fourth generations of these families are the political and business elite of Bristol. Outsiders know the town mostly as the site of the oldest Independence Day celebration in the nation. The highest honor the town can bestow on a resident is to be named chief marshal, the leader of the parade. Halsey Herreshoff, scion of one of the town’s oldest families, has been a crew member on three winning America’s Cup boats. Yet he says the great thrill of his life was the morning he led the parade as chief marshal.

From 1785 until the Jazz Age, the chief marshals were a skein of Yankee surnames:  Colt, De Wolf and Chase, Rockwell, Burnside and Haffenreffer. Then the names change to reflect Irish and Italian immigrants:  Leahy, Campagna and Riccio. The first marshal of Portuguese ancestry came in 1954 when Matt Brito strutted at the head of the parade. Now, many marshals are of Portuguese ancestry.

In too many other New England communities, the historic preservation movement is the province of old families.  Bristol’s history is embraced by everyone. Even the Dunkin Donuts downtown has a tasteful brick façade in a historic building.

Bristol today is more bedroom community for Providence and the high tech workers of Aquidneck Island.  It retains its small-town feel because  it isn’t easy to get to. Just two roads run off the peninsula, Routes 114 and 136. Locals alternatively gripe about the traffic and count their blessings; if Bristol was a quick commute it would be just another busy suburb like East Providence or Barrington-like suburb.

The water-surrounded downtown has its share of restaurants and shops, yet without the summer tourist hordes of Newport or the kitsch of Wickford Village.

Bristol residents live on the bay, with the riffle of sail on a sun-washed day, the gentle afternoon breeze escorting boats to home port, the streak of an exploding peach sunset. There are also angry autumn whitecaps, the overcoat-piercing windy chill of winter and the insistent moan of a distant fog horn.

It’s a community that clings to ancient rhythms and themes. Two years ago, Joseph Coelho Sr., and his son, Joseph Coelho Jr., were named co- chief marshals. The July 4th program explained that the senior Coelho boasted the litany of civic good deeds that earned him the post. But it turned out that the senior   Coelho had moved as a young boy from neighboring Rehoboth, so he didn’t qualify as a Bristolian, while his son did.

Cantwell lamented that she was born at Lying-In Hospital.  ``I will not forgive my parents this journey. Their bringing me to Providence to be born means that, strictly speaking, unlike my mother and grandmother and great-grandmother, I am not, strictly speaking, a Bristolian.’’

Which is why I will never have the hubris to call myself a Bristolian.

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